After the first day of President Biden’s two-day climate summit this week, one could easily have the impression that global leaders are very, very good people who take the climate crisis very, very seriously. Biden had summoned together 40 heads of state from all the most powerful nations of the world for what amounted to a giant Zoom meeting to discuss how concerned they all are about the fate of human civilization on a superheated planet.
And they all had important things to say. Biden called climate change “the existential crisis of our time” and announced a new goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 (measured from a 2005 baseline). China’s President Xi promised to “strictly control” coal-fired power plants. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has been aggressively expanding natural gas exports, talked about the value of natural eco-systems and promised to “significantly” cut Russia’s net emissions in the coming decades. Even Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate thug if there ever was one, got in on the action, promising to end illegal deforestation by 2030, if the international community pledges to lend billions of dollars to the effort (climate shakedown, anyone?).
It was all very inspiring, and a sign of what a difference bold U.S. leadership can make. After all, just a few months ago, America had a president who thought the climate crisis was a hoax and who had hired the former CEO of ExxonMobil as his first secretary of state.
Or maybe it wasn’t so inspiring. Maybe Putin and Bolsonaro and Xi were playing an entirely different game than they appeared to be, in which the climate crisis is just a pawn in a much larger chess board. Maybe in a few years, climate activists will look back on this summit and see it as just another gathering of fossil fuel-aholics who were promising, once again, to get sober.
I have no idea. And neither does anyone else, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk. The climate and energy world is in a transformational moment where politics and economics and technology are shifting so fast that nobody really knows what’s possible and what’s not possible. And that’s what makes this such an exciting moment in the brief history of human civilization – and such a scary one.
Maybe veteran climate warrior John Kerry is right, that if the clean-energy markets start moving, innovation will accelerate exponentially, and fossil fuels will soon be as obsolete as buggy whips. “It’s like the Industrial Revolution,” Kerry told Rolling Stone in February, adding, “This is the future. And Donald Trump was an aberration, he was a hiccup in the digestive system of history. I’m telling you, he couldn’t undo this if he tried. No one could.”
Or maybe the critics of capitalism are right, that dealing with the climate crisis will ultimately require us to radically change our assumptions about economic growth.
On one level, the climate summit was pure political theater, a carefully choreographed event designed to give leaders a platform to brag about their concern for the planet to key constituencies back home. All the key players know their roles: President Biden is the football coach making inspirational speeches in the locker room before the Big Game (which, in this case, will be the international climate meeting in Glasgow this coming November, known as COP26); President Xi is a struggling entrepreneur who is working hard to get his business off the ground; President Putin is the gangster counting his riches and having an existential laugh at the whole charade.
Still, for climate junkies, there was fun to be had in watching the political feints and jabs of various participants. There were plenty of cringe-y lines (“We should protect nature and preserve the environment like we protect our eyes,” President Xi said). And some inspiring moments as well: “You need to accept the era of fossil fuels is over,” 18-year-old Xiye Bastida, a New York-based organizer with Fridays for Future, told the summit attendees. “You will often tell us again and again that we are being unrealistic and unreasonable. But who is being unrealistic and unreasonable with non-ambitious, non-bold solutions?”
By far the biggest and most important announcement at the summit was President Biden’s commitment that the U.S. would cut greenhouse gases by at least 50 percent below 2005 emissions by 2030, a goal that puts the U.S. on track to meet the 1.5 C target that scientists have determined is the threshold for serious climate chaos.
It’s a breathtakingly ambitious goal, and one that would require a radical remaking of the American economy. How radical? According to a widely cited study by the University of Maryland, by 2030, more than half of the new cars and S.U.V.s sold in America would need to be electric. Virtually all coal-fired power plants would need to be shut down. The number of wind turbines and solar panels would need to quadruple. New buildings would need to be 100 percent electric (no more gas heating). And forests would need to expand to help suck up the CO2 in the atmosphere.
Is it technically possible? Yes. Is it politically possible? Yes. Might the push for such a dramatic reinvention of the U.S. economy create such a backlash that it causes Democrats to lose their narrow margins in the House and Senate in 2022, and thereby wreck any chance of climate action in the U.S. for the foreseeable future? Yes.
However you feel about the prospects for Biden’s success, you gotta respect his seriousness and courage. As of Earth Day, Biden had been in office exactly 93 days. Besides dealing with a pandemic, the administration had to spend precious time reversing all the climate-killing executive orders that President Trump enacted, not to mention a border crisis, the aftermath of an insurrection, repeated mass shootings, and a barrage of legislative assaults on voting rights around the country.
But already, Biden has shown far more ambition than any political leader in the climate era. He has brought in a team of All-Stars – John Kerry, Gina McCarthy, Brian Deese, Deb Haaland, among many others — who know where all the bodies are buried and who are determined to integrate climate into every aspect of U.S. policy. You see the scope and scale of the administration’s ambition in the 2030 target, but also in smaller moments like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen tweeting about how integrating climate risk into financial and economic projections is a new and unfamiliar thing for regulators. Or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg touting the virtues of bikes every chance he gets.
Biden’s biggest problem, as many observers have pointed out, is that America has no credibility in the climate world. Over the years, we have wandered in and out of climate agreements like a drunk looking for free booze. Why would anyone trust the U.S. to follow through on their commitments right now?
It’s a good question, and one that can only be answered in the coming months as Biden, hopefully, transforms his words into action.
But this is not only about trust. This is also about power and money. What’s going to save the planet is not whether or not other countries trust America to make good on their pledge. It’s whether or not they see economic and political opportunity in taking dramatic action to address the climate crisis. If saving the rainforest helps Bolsonaro remain in power, he will do what he can to save the rainforest.
Beyond the U.S. commitment, other nations made announcements that sounded meaningful: Canada pledged to cut emissions 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Japan said it would cut emissions 46 percent from 2013 levels by 2030. South Korea said it would stop financing coal plants overseas. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reconfirmed the country’s vow to install 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030. Modi also announced an India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda Partnership for 2030. An analysis by Carbon Action Tracker shows that pledges made at the summit would shave about 3 gigatons off the 20 gigaton emissions gap between current commitments and the 1.5 C goal.
All of these commitments are important, but they are all equally real or unreal, depending on your level of cynicism about politics and human nature. None of these commitments are legally binding (at least, not in any international court). Climate negotiators will tell you these international climate meetings are Kabuki-like rituals that are all about building mutual trust and a mutual capacity for change. But they are also about building a shame culture, an arena where even Putin is wary of calling bullshit because he knows it will make him, and his country, an international pariah. Ultimately, technological progress will make fossil fuels extinct. But until then, one of the unspoken goals of climate agreements is to make burning fossil fuels the equivalent of child labor or human torture: something that civilized societies do not permit.
Maybe the best way to think about this summit is as the first dress rehearsal for climate action in the Biden era. It’s a chance for all the players – climate activists included — to see how well other people know their lines, what the pressure points are, how the hometown audience responds, what kind of phone calls and emails come in from Big Money, etc. Although these climate meetings are full of people who are genuinely concerned about the fate of the planet and want to do the right thing, in the end, the real motive is usually self-preservation. It is political leaders with their fingers in the wind, trying to figure out what political storms loom on the horizon.
Personally, I thought there was nowhere near enough talk about climate justice at the summit, particularly about what the rich nations of the world owe the poor nations of the world for the damage that climate change has caused to their economies, and to their people. I hoped somebody would have put more cold hard cash on the table for the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing nations deal with the impacts of climate change (rich nations promised to mobilize $100 billion a year for the fund, but so far, they have only coughed up a small fraction of that). I wish President Xi had blown up a coal plant during his video feed. And it would have been cool if President Bolsonaro had used the summit to resign from office because he realized his presidency was inconsistent with Greta Thunberg’s dreams of a habitable planet.
But that is not the world we live in. We live in a world of hand-to-hand combat, where change comes slowly — until it comes fast. Some days I think we are on the verge of what writer and futurist Alex Steffen calls “the snap forward.” Other days, it seems like the only thing anyone has learned in the last 40 years is how to talk more urgently about the actions we will soon – very soon! — take to confront the climate crisis. After all, we are all very serious people. We know this is a very serious crisis that demands more than just big talk.